Sunday, December 07, 2008

The science in "Nobel Son"

Last night I saw Nobel Son, the new Alan Rickman movie where he plays an arrogant chemist who wins the Nobel prize. I don't want to talk about the actual plot, which is one of those "wheels within wheels" over-complicated thrillers that everyone has seen before at least once.

Instead, I want to discuss the Rickman character -- Professor Eli Michaelson. Granted, the plot didn't really require him to be anything else than successful and arrogant -- he could have equally been a CEO or something without changing the movie much, but let's see how well the movie captured science and its culture.
  1. Michaelson's  research. Apparently it has something to do with molecular fluorescence stimulated by lasers. Given that the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (which I'm sure was picked well after this movie was completed) , did deal with fluorescence, albeit created by Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) rather than lasers, kudos to the scriptwriters.
  2. Understanding of how grad school works. This the writers did not do so well. Early on in the movie Michaelson is established as unpleasant and unethical by showing him doing a quickie in his office with one of his grad students who is unhappy with her grade. I suspect the writers only have experience with undergraduate education. Grades just aren't a major issue in grad school. If the student were complaining about her project or authorship on a paper, this would have been more plausible.
  3. Choice of reading material for a chemist. During the above mentioned quickie, an issue of Cell is clearly shown on Michaelson's desk. Yes, Cell is a major journal -- but for biologists and not chemists. An issue of Science or Nature (which publish across all branches of science) or indeed a chemistry journal, would have been more plausible.
  4. Amount of Prize Money. The amount "$2 million" is a major plot factor in the movie. But would a Nobel Laureate actually get that much? The prize is currently $10 million SEK (US $1.2 million at present). Plus this amount is shared with the other winners in the category (The movie never says if Michaelson is sharing the award).


John Tsang said...

a lot of chemistry prizes have been given to biology-related discoveries, e.g. 3D structure of transmembrane proteins. so it's conceivable that he is interested in papers in Cell. he could well have been doing biochemistry :)

Jonathan Badger said...

Good point, particularly given that his work deals with molecular fluorescence. We never actually see his lab -- just his office.